Saturday, April 10, 2010
"Being Boring" by the Pet Shop Boys (1990)
The Pet Shop Boys, let there be no doubt, are wonderful. You could easily fill a blog with 'the best Pet Shop Boys songs in the world... ever'. By any useful standard, they should be heralded and worshipped up there with 'the greats' – your Led Zeppelins, your Beatles, etc. As it is, they risk a complete slide into obscurity. Why? I think that, to a certain level, their success has also been their failure. Ironic detachment is a great novelty, a kind of parlour trick that wows them at first but then leaves them a little bored, and with a bit of a bitter aftertaste in their mouths. Irony is a great art that has added a lot to our culture, but I think that generally speaking it needs to be applied sparingly. The M.O. of the Pet Shop Boys, generally, is Neil Tennant's usually arch, usually monotonous vocals singing invariably literate, witty and clever lyrics over synth-pop spiked with dance music of whatever genre happens to be currently fashionable. It's a pretty genius formula, really – and it's nowhere near as repetetive as it might seem. There's plenty of room for variation in this format.
The overall feel is often a dichotomy between current musical trends and a kind of aesthetic that goes all the way back to the 1940s – or even the flapper era. Like obvious role models like Cole Porter, Neil Tennant is aware that irony and that smirk on the lips only tell half the tale: they disarm, lowering defenses in order to let the truly emotional, the sentimental, in. Neil Tennant is not afraid to pull heartstrings, but he rarely does it. This makes it all the more special when he does.
The heartstrings get pulled in every direction on this song, frequently considered the Pet Shop Boys' very best – or, more grandly, the 'best song ever'. To start with, the song is a master of minor-key wistfulness, its slow fade-in and not-ostentatious wah-wah backdrop setting the mood for thoughtful contemplation, for a reflective consideration of what, and who, has been lost. This is a lament not only to friends and loved ones lost to AIDS but to a childlike innocence lost not only to AIDS as well but also to the simple ravages of age. The wistfulness is borne of the realisation that the years Tennant so lovingly describes are irrevocably gone – and so they are remembered not only with fondness but with a defiant pride. Neil Tennant remembers those lost years as true glory years, a time of reaching for greatness. Implicit in the sadness of this recollection is the notion that one rarely attempts to reach for greatness after a certain age – or at least not if crippled by the constant disappearance of loved ones.
This is not the kind of message you usually encounter in a pop song, and 'Being Boring' truly is no pop song. It is rather something more serious and sedate than that. It has a beat (and that wah-wah again) that makes it theoretically danceable, but it's all but impossible to imagine a dance floor responding to its waves of emotion. In fact, the dance beats of this song act as another echo of the past – the foot scuffs left on a now-empty dancefloor.
This perhaps explains why this 'sleeper', which is one of the Pet Shop Boys' most beloved songs some twenty years later, only went as high as #20 at the time. We don't always want to be confronted with naked emotion, sentimentality and an aching sense of loss. Which is why we remember Neil Tennant for that ironic, arch smirk.
When we remember him at all.